The International Writers Magazine

Of soul-homes, sky-temples and safaris
A young Pakistani traveler’s unforgettable first encounter with Africa
Menel Ahmed

hen you’ve been living in a particular place for a number of years, you tend to forget that a world outside exists. Sure, you see glimpses of that world on television, in newspapers, books and pictures – you see the mountains, the forests, the beaches, the cities, the wild animals, the different-colored people. But after a while you switch off – there are jobs to do, meals to cook, bills to pay, relatives to visit, parties to attend.

And so each day passes, drifting into the other, exactly the same as the one before. One of these days, you’ll die, and you may well be a contented, satisfied person, in a worldly sort of way – you had a successful career, a nice family, a nice house, nice friends, a decent social life; perhaps not the most faultless of characters, but still, respectable; and overall yours was a rather cushy existence.

But there is one thing you always wanted to do, and never quite did – your heart would reproach you, about your lack of spontaneity, your unwillingness to accept a change – until finally it spoke no more, its voice drowned in the multitudinous hum of air conditioners and cellular phones.
And on your deathbed, you will wish you had listened. You will wish you had stepped out of the television frames of vicarious existence, stepped out of that neatly-drawn, static little circle you called life, and seen the jungles for yourself.
Heard, smelt, tasted, felt, understood.
You will wish you had traveled.

I’ve always had a fixation with traveling, and I’ve done quite a bit of it as a teenager, with my family, friends or for work. It’s all been tremendous fun, in the frenzied, touristy kind of way, but this time - my 20th summer - I felt something different. Something more compelling, more powerful; a quieter kind of excitement, a deeper, older, inward kind of joy. I felt it once before, in Mecca last year, when I stood before the Ka’ba, transfixed, eyes sparkling with tears, thinking only that I’d never seen anything more beautiful. That was my faith-temple, my sacred soul-home, but there are temples and soul-homes scattered all over the world - and one of these I discovered past summer, in Africa.

Kenya, to be more precise – any generalization about that vast and beautiful continent is grossly unfair. I’d never been to Kenya, or anywhere in Africa before, so I didn’t quite know what to expect. I had some general impressions – stuff that your mind picks up from TV shows, nature magazines and Disney movies - all thoroughly wrong, of course, as preconceived impressions tend to be.

My first learning experience happened as soon as we disembarked at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi, and noticed something odd – i.e., the cold! It was the middle of July, a time when back home the temperatures are such you could fry eggs on the windowpanes. Not that I mind cold, of course – I’m a winter person, and cold wind does to me what coffee does to caffeine addicts. But this was a bit of a situation – our packing consisted almost entirely of t-shirts, and, well, t-shirts, save for the two denim jackets Ammi had emphatically made us pack at the last minute. It seems that mom’s active little sixth sense had already informed her subconscious that Kenya happens to lie below the equator, making July the blusteriest nippiest wintriest month of the year. We also later discovered that the weather in Nairobi stays cool all year round, averaging 20ēCelsius daytime - which explained why there was no central heating or cooling in any of the homes or buildings, not even fans! It was a paradisiacal sort of climate, crispy cool, dappled with deliciously warm sun, a tickling breeze and minty-fresh air. Now this was something of a revelation to us, after all those pictures of sticky, mosquito-bitten, khaki-clad explorers plodding through parched savannahs under torrid, merciless suns (they obviously didn’t know the best time to visit). And so, happy and suddenly revived, with those denim jackets our salvation, we piled into the High Commissioner’s black Prado for our first look at the city of Nairobi, capital of Kenya.

When I was a participant at some of these international youth summits in America, I remember people asking me questions like, "Do you have computers in Pakistan? Roads? Do you live in mud huts?" and I would get a little annoyed, not so much at the people, but at the startlingly skewed perspective of the international media. While it’s true that millions of people in Pakistan still do live in mud huts in villages with dirt roads and no electricity, millions also live in regular cities, just like cities anywhere else in the world. And what’s funny is that I found myself wondering the same things about Kenya before we left for the trip – and when I came back my friends asked me the same things: "So, is it like, civilized?" Which, if you think about it, isn’t such an absurd question, considering that the only things we do see about Africa on TV are animals, natives in tribal costumes, civil wars, AIDS, and famine. So when we passed the big telecom billboards, the colorful Sunday markets, the bus stops, the roundabouts, the churches, the lovely tile-roofed houses, the banks and shopping malls, I admit it was a bit of a surprise.

Pic: With the Sykes Gray Monkeys

Nairobi could’ve easily been Islamabad (the pretty hilly capital of Pakistan). In parts, it could’ve been Lahore too (the lovely old big-tree-lined city where I live), and sometimes even Murree (a fun northern mountain-resort). I loved it instantly – it had this cheerful, easy-going, very homey feel about it that told me I could live here rather happily. But what reminded us that we were in Kenya and not Pakistan, what made it Nairobi and not Islamabad was Nairobi’s greatest treasure, the trees.

I have never in my life seen such gorgeous trees. It is as if the city were an amorphous wild creature, winding and weaving its way through a web of virgin forest. They may have paved the earth, they may have put tall concrete structures in the sky, but here the jungle was still mistress, still queen, and green was the color of her throne, green were her fluttering banners, vivid, glistening, exuberant, alive. And in the silence of the night, you could hear her breathe, hear her grow - in every twig and leaf and blade of grass, in every flaming flower, you could hear the humming drumbeat of the jungle.

Our driver was called Agre, a rather immense fellow with a smile that betrayed his forbidding-suited-bodyguard image completely. He melted before Bia and me the moment we emerged from the airport and greeted him with a beaming "Jambo!" It was lucky I had learnt some Swahili phrases on the Internet before the trip; an occasional "Habari" ("How are you?") or "Asante" ("Thank you!") was all it took to win a Kenyan driver, shopkeeper or braid-maker’s heart. But I was wonderfully warmed to see how incredibly friendly everyone was!

There are several types of ‘friendlinesses’, and most often we experience the obligatory type, like the flushed high-pitched overpoweringly polite waitress at Pizza Hut, or the curious blond apartment-neighbor who must feign civility even though her face has turned quite the ashen hue since you told her where you’re from.

Here, however, people were nice because they were. It was just natural. As politely as they could, they tried to fleece you a bit, because you were foreigners, but being desi (i.e., South Asian Indian sub-continental) and hence bargain-hunters by birth, we escaped the fleecing quite comfortably and ended up taking a nice lot of wooden masks, mini hide-drums, floppy straw hats and sea-shelled sandals back home with us.

One place you must visit if you’re ever in Nairobi, though, is the Nairobi City Park. You park your car outside this gateless entrance and follow a windy dirt road flanked by riotous trees of nameless varieties, until you turn a bend and come to a clearing, in the center, you will behold the most magnificent, fuchsia-pink bougainvillea tree. I was mesmerized – the tree looked to me a goddess-bride, tall and towering, her green arms and long lush tresses flowing wild with flowers. Crowned in the deepest pink, with a green mantle of vines billowing behind her. The photographs, of course, don’t even tell half the story, and the video camera shames her. But in my mind’s eye I can see her, standing there poised in her hushed, dim, light-twinkling temple, a muffled sort of chippering floating on the air… and then, suddenly, furry little shapes materialize from the darkness before your sun-speckled eyes, perched on branches, hidden in thickets, peering from behind tree trunks… and in a sudden rustling, moment, you find yourself besieged by an army of wild gray Sykes’ monkeys!

When people look at the pictures of us with the monkeys, they gasp incredulously and ask, "But weren’t you scared?" The truth is, we don’t know, because there wasn’t time to feel scared! They appeared from nowhere, and before you knew what was going on, they were swarming around you, clambering on top of you, tugging your hair, knocking off your hats, fiddling with your jacket zippers, prying into your pockets. No, it wasn’t scary at all – it was supremely exciting! I can safely say that it hasn’t often happened in my life that a big fat fuzzy 30-pounder Sykes’ monkey sits on my shoulder nibbling corn-ears from my palm - nor do you often find monkeys scrambling up your legs or prancing on your head as if it were the most normal thing in the world for them to do.

And it was at that place and moment that we began to discover the true magic of Africa. The High Commissioner took us out for dinner that night in a wonderfully tasteful Indian restaurant. There’s a rather large population of Indians in Kenya, most of them descendants of the traders, artisans and laborers relocated here by the British during the 19th century. Kenya, being a former British colony, shares much of her historical experiences with Pakistan.

I could safely say that, post-independence, Kenya’s made much better progress as far as education is concerned. The results are obvious – everybody can speak, read and write English, nature is respected, not vandalized, people are polite, and do not ogle. I don’t think I ever saw a scrap of litter on any street in the city or countryside.

But there’s a downside too, a consequence of and reaction to poverty, ethnic strife and a corrupt and completely incompetent police force. Nairobi (or rather, Nairobbery, as it is fondly referred to by the media) after dark is a veritable den of thieves, mobsters and seditionists. Young, unemployed men who resent rich foreigners for coming and entrenching themselves in their country, living in fine houses and having a grand time at the expense of their resources. All houses have armed watchmen, security alarm systems, barred doors and windows. Even in broad daylight you can have your purse pinched if you look like a foreigner. Nothing of the sort happened to us, thankfully, but we were told many horror stories by acquaintances who live there, so we tried being as discreet as possible when we went out shopping. Smiling meekly at any passerby who looked remotely threatening. The next day we left for the place of dreams, the Masai Mara.

Part Two here

Menel Ahmed December 2005

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